William Grant Still’s ‘Symphony No. 1 – Afro-American’ by Natty Sikand-Youngs


‘The American Negro had made an unrecognised contribution of great value to American music’ declared the black composer William Grant Still in a retrospective interview in 1968. In this assertion, his career itself was his best proof: his symphony and opera were both performed by leading musical groups in the United States, he conducted a ‘major’ orchestra in the Deep South, and his works were included in the International Composers’ Guild and the American Composers’ Concerts. Still was the first American with black skin to have accomplished each of these feats. While his successes were thus a great proof of the artistic and intellectual capabilities of African-Americans, the content of his work itself is far more complex and ambiguous in its treatment of black culture and identity. There is no richer example of this than his most famous composition, the Symphony No. 1, simply and aptly named Afro-American. Written in 1930, it strove to ‘elevate the blues [to] a dignified position in symphonic literature’. With this melding of two distinctly black and white musical traditions, the work engages with some of the most contested debates of the Harlem Renaissance. By using contemporary African-American thought and writing as a lens with which to examine the musical content of the composition, Still’s ‘Afro-American’ symphony proves to be as much a political and cultural exploration of the black experience as it does a modernist experiment in cultural hybridity.

As with European classical traditions, the symphony’s opening movement serves to introduce the core themes that underpin the entire work. Still begins with a simple and contemplative flute solo that pivots on the flat-seventh and flat-third – the two defining tonalities of the blues. By adding more instruments and counter-motifs, this initially simple blues melody is woven with the complexity and diversity of character required for an entire symphonic movement. Doing so not only demonstrates the musical possibilities contained within this one particular melody, but also signifies the broader cultural value and merit of black art; it is itself a ‘New Negro’ movement, growing from its timid opening as if triumphantly responding to W. E. B DuBois’ demand in the Crisis magazine in 1926 – ‘of what is the colored artist capable?’. Yet closer analysis of the first movement challenges the extent to which the music actually contests the perception of African-American art forms as primitive. Still’s motivic development – the crux of his demonstration of the value of black music – is built upon two central practices of white European classicalism: firstly, a more polyphonic texture compared to the often strict division between lead and accompaniment parts found in blues and jazz; and secondly, a triadic structure that resembles the sonata form. Such a fundamental reliance on the techniques of white classicalism reflects Still’s specific ambition to ‘elevate’ – rather than to celebrate – the blues.


The political ambiguity of the work thus hinges on whether it succeeds in endowing African-American music with the complexity and artistry of European classical traditions, or whether Still merely reinforces the hegemonic dichotomy of blackness as primitive and whiteness as the aspirational ideal. Many figures in the Harlem Renaissance warned of such perils when engaging with white culture. Langston Hughes’s famous article ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ identified a ‘Nordicized Negro intelligentsia’ who failed to ‘express [their] individual dark-skinned sel[f]’. Alain Locke certainly regarded Still as one such artist, describing his music as ‘ultra-modernistic and too sophisticated for the laity’. Initially, these critiques seem to become ever more applicable to the Afro-American symphony after the first movement. The ‘Adagio’ (slow) second movement evokes as much European modernism as black American blues: it departs from the twelve-bar form, relying instead on the non-diatonic chromaticism which musicologist Carol Oja identifies as being typical of Still’s distinctive modernism. So too in the final movement, where a blues theme is embedded in the sorts of tonally disorientating themes that have come to define the experimental practices of contemporary composition. This assimilation of blues, jazz and modernism, however, is not just the racial integration of black and white; rather, it is also the stylistic amalgamation of the musical time and place out of which the symphony was written. Engaging with a range of contemporary music regardless of racial provenance allows the symphony to evoke the aesthetic of that moment in history – the ‘structure of feeling’ as Raymond Williams put it. Still’s articulation of black identity, particularly the black experience, thus recognises that racial constructions are inseparable from their broader cultural contexts. Although it dilutes the symphony’s African-American identity in a purely stylistic sense, it is this musical integration that allows Still to ‘express his individual darker-skinned self’.

Ironically, this synthesis of different musical styles – divided by “race”, yet united by time – serves to better situate the Afro-American symphony as a product and representation of the Harlem Renaissance, even at the peril of clashing with many of the movement’s artists and writers (like Hughes and Locke, but also the broader ideological black nationalism of the likes of Marcus Garvey). As demonstrated by Claude McKay’s use of the sonnet in his poetry, Archibald Motley’s inspiration from the “Old Masters” of European painting, or even the financial support provided by white patrons, the African-American writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance were not independent of “white” America. As Nathan Irvin Huggins summarised, contemporary African-American artists were ‘bound up in a more general American experience than a “Harlem Renaissance” would suggest’. Yet more crucially, the Afro-American symphony highlights a shared ideal in otherwise conflicting perspectives on the Harlem Renaissance. In the closing sections of the Criteria of Negro Art, DuBois hopefully anticipates that ‘as soon as true art emerges, […] someone touches race on the shoulder and says, “[the black artist] is not a Negro […] he is just human”’. Hughes’s The Racial Mountain, despite its disputation with DuBois’s view, concludes on a similarly humanistic note, declaring that ‘we [African-American artists] know we are beautiful. And ugly too’. The diversity of character and emotion conveyed by the Afro-American symphony is fundamentally constructed from this parallel in the politics of DuBois and Hughes. Still uses music to evoke not only the idealised attributes of the ‘New Negro’ – pride, exaltation, resilience – but also real, lived feelings: vulnerability, despair, and loneliness. It is a work that prioritises the expression of a black experience over a black identity. Rooted in this premise, William Grant Still’s Afro-American symphony continues – just as it did at the height of the Harlem Renaissance – to resonate in both dissonance and harmony with the countless voices of the black experience in America.


Motley, Archibald. Interview at his home in Chicago, Illionis. 23 Jan. 1978. ‘Oral history interview with Archibald Motley, 1978 Jan. 23 – 1979 Mar. 1.’ Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institute. Archives of American Art. Web. 12 Feb. 15. <http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-archibald-motley-11466&gt;.

Still, William Grant. Interview by R. Donald Brown for the Oral History Program, California State University at Fullerton. 13 Nov. and 4 Dec. 1967. Qtd in Judith Anne Still Headlee. ‘William Grant Still: A Voice of High Sounding’. Music Educators Journal 70.6 (Feb. 1984): pp. 24-30. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/3400787&gt;.

______. Symphony No. 1 in ¬A-Flat – ‘Afro-American’. Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra cond. by John Jeter. Naxos, B0007ORDYU, 2005.

Bibliography of Critical Material

Arvey, Verna. ‘Memo for Musicologists’ in R. B. Hass ed. William Grant Still and the Fusion of Culture in American Music. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975: pp. 88-93.

DuBois, W. E. B. ‘The Criteria of Negro Art’. The Crisis 32 (Oct. 1926): pp. 290-297. WEBDuBois.org. Web. 2 Mar. 2014. <http://www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.html&gt;.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. The Harlem Renaissance. 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hughes, Langston. ‘The Negro and the Racial Mountain’ in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay eds. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. 2nd Ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004: pp. 1311-1314.

Locke, Alain. The Negro and his Music. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936.

Oja, Carol J. ‘“New Music” and the “New Negro”: The Background of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony.’ Black Music Research Journal 12.2 (Autumn, 1992): pp. 145-169. JSTOR. Web. 01 Mar. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/779440&gt;.

Smith, Catherine Parsons. William Grant Still: A Study in Contradictions. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2001.


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